updated 9/26/2006 4:46:17 PM ET 2006-09-26T20:46:17

Russia will ship fuel to a controversial atomic power plant it is building in Iran by March under an agreement signed Tuesday — a deal that should allay Iranian suspicions that Moscow is dragging its feet and add to Western fears over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.

With the European Union’s foreign policy chief slated to meet Iran’s top nuclear negotiator soon for talks on a six-nation incentive package, the agreement signed by senior Russian and Iranian nuclear officials represents a small victory for Iran, which insists its nuclear efforts are peaceful and aimed solely at generating electricity.

Iran says it needs enrichment to produce fuel for electricity-generating nuclear reactors. Enrichment can also create weapons-grade material, however, and the United States and other nations have accused Tehran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

Britain, France, Germany, the United States, China and Russia are hoping Tehran will agree quickly to suspend uranium enrichment after it missed an Aug. 31 Security Council deadline and return to negotiations. But they are considering U.N. sanctions if it does not.

80 tons of fuel
Russian news agencies reported that Sergei Shmatko, head of the state-run company Atomstroiexport, and Mahmoud Hanatian, vice president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, signed an additional protocol setting out a time frame for starting up the $800 million Bushehr plant — Iran’s first.

“The document provides for supplying Russian fuel for the atomic energy plant in March, physical startup in September 2007 and electric generation by November 2007,” Hanatian was quoted as saying by ITAR-Tass.

Shmatko said about 80 tons of fuel would be supplied, according to Interfax and ITAR-Tass.

Western nations fear Tehran could try to divert nuclear fuel used at the Bushehr plant and seek to enrich it further for potential use in a weapon.

To try to ease Western concerns over Bushehr, Russia has agreed with Iran that Tehran will ship spent fuel back to Russia. However, Iran has resisted Russia’s proposal to conduct all of Iran’s uranium enrichment on Russian soil.

Later, at a meeting with Russian Security Council secretary Igor Ivanov, Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh said Tehran was satisfied with the agreement.

“We reached a good agreement ... on completing construction of the atomic energy plant at Bushehr, including agreement on a concrete date for directing atomic fuel to Iran,” said Aghazadeh, who is head of Iran’s nuclear organization.

Ivanov insisted again on a diplomatic solution to international concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program and said Moscow would comply with its terms of the deal for the Bushehr plant.

“We will strictly fulfill our obligations,” he said.

“We consider it necessary that Iran should be guaranteed the right to peacefully develop nuclear energy ... and also to remove the concerns of the international community regarding obligations under the nonproliferation regime,” Ivanov told Aghazadeh.

More talks soon
Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, are scheduled to hold another round of talks soon over a package of incentives put forward by the six key nations if Tehran agrees to suspend its enrichment program and return to full-scale negotiations.

Anton Khlopkov, a nonproliferation analyst and deputy director of the Moscow-based PIR Center, said Tuesday’s agreement was most important from Iran’s perspective — both for reasons of prestige but also because it had long pushed Russia to agree on a firm date to supply the fuel.

He said once the fuel is delivered to Bushehr, new International Atomic Energy Agency requirements will come into force, including greater surveillance of the reactor operations. That would make an attack of Bushehr — for example, by U.S. or Israeli forces — much less likely, he said, since IAEA inspectors would have more access to the facilities.

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